The heavy spring rains of ‘81 that flooded and crippled the crops were impossible to forget. For many Midwestern farmers, like my father, planting had to wait. Some crops were not even harvested until after Thanksgiving the following fall. Where corn and soybeans were already planted, heavy rains washed away the infant seedlings, and the drainage ditches, empty the year before, overflowed. Some farmers tried to plant anyway. Too eager for their own good, Daddy said, looking at their tractors stuck in the soil. Old-time farmers, like my father’s dad, who bought the family farm after returning from WWII, said they never saw rain like the kind that fell that year.
Daddy did not speak of the rain, but worry could be read on his face, a map of premature wrinkles, worsened by Mama’s illness. A displaced cowboy who exhaled more smoke from his Marlboro cigarettes than he did words.
Many farmers worked without pay that year. The more disadvantaged ones were forced to sell out and quit. Grandma Thompson, my father’s mother, was right: When it rained, it poured.
After Mama shut away in her room before she left for the hospital and never came back, I saw my Grandma Thompson almost every day. She drove from her house in town to the farm, ten minutes away, to care for us kids: me, four years-old, Rodney, eight, and Richie, twelve. Often, when she looked at me, I swear she was going to cry, but she ended up smiling or hugging me instead.
Grandma was tall and slender with graying hair, which her second cousin set and styled every Saturday morning at the beauty parlor. A neatly coiffed bouffant that she swaddled in silky, patterned scarves on windy days. Even when she wore her everyday clothes, dirty from life on the farm, she looked elegant. She fixed meals: just-the-right amount of sugar to cinnamon on toast for breakfast, paper-thin, layered deli-meat sandwiches with thick, crisp potato chips for lunch, and savory red meat with thick, buttery mashed potatoes for dinner. For snack time, she baked homemade sweets, which we took to the men when they worked in the fields. Coffee cake with drizzled frosting. Brownies with whipped fudge frosting. And Grandma’s very own secret recipe, cherry pie, made with real cherries. Pies that sold out first at the church bake sales.
Visitors came to the house dressed in their Sunday best. Some I knew. Some I didn’t. They were quiet when they patted my four-year-old head. They were sad. I must have asked about Mama. I must have missed her, but she stayed upstairs while I stayed down.
Except for one day. She sat in the living room, in the green armchair that swiveled with a slight screech like a rusty playground merry-go-round. The room itself was decorated in browns and tans with an accent of avocado, all which she did before she got real sick. The chair was made of wool and felt scratchy to the skin—nothing like the smooth, creamy fruit from which it got its name. The usually noisy house was quiet, and she and I were alone.
She looked thicker, paler, and much older than she did in the gold-framed photographs that hung on the living room wall, covered in a floral wallpaper with white daisies, yellow roses, and orange marigolds, all in full bloom. Her senior high school picture with short auburn hair that flipped out at the bottom. The wedding photograph of her and my father at their wedding: she in a short, white dress, and he in a black tuxedo. She with my two older brothers before I was born, all three of them wearing robin’s egg blue. And one of me, age two, and my two brothers, Rodney and Richie, ages six and ten. Grandma Thompson said I looked cute as a button in that picture. Rodney, with his pudgy, pink flesh and straight, Norwegian blond hair, and Richie, thin as a rail with wavy auburn hair the color of Mama’s. We sat close in the photograph. With ease. I was in the front and centered between my two brothers, who were behind me. Each put a willing hand on my shoulders. Our bodies were close, sighing into one another’s.
Mama winced as she sat in the chair, her body struggling to hold back an inevitable cough. My hair was shorter than hers, cut into a manageable bob, and blonder, but our eyes matched: big and blue. I was glad to have her eyes, but her failing body, sicker from the cure than the disease, was no match for mine with energy older folks said they’d like to bottle.
Please play with me, Mama.
It seemed like forever before she answered. One day, I will.
I asked again. Again. Again. I knew I shouldn’t, but I kept at it.
I can’t today, she said.
Each time, she smiled. A smile I had not seen in a long while. Not as stunning as the one in her senior year portrait, but solid. A smile with roots in deep soil, and I wanted to dig a hole in that deep soil and burrow in beside her—inhabit her space.
The rain came down hard on the windows, and her snail-pace hands tugged at the hand-made throw around her shoulders, even though she was sitting directly under the vent that coughed hot air into the old, drafty, damp farmhouse.
Go Fish. Hide and Go Seek. Maybe a bounce on her knee. A short book. Dolls. War. I catalogued the possibilities, but she only shook her head like a groggy weeping willow swaying in a late summer breeze.
She looked more tired with each shake of her head, but her smile remained, though it softened unlike the pelting rain outside.
No one will play with me anymore, I erupted.
One day I will play with you. All day. Anything you want. That day will come.
There was a pause.
I promise, sweetheart.
No, you won’t. You won’t play. You say you will, but you won’t!
I ran to the playroom, on the other side of the first floor. Even though the furnace butted up against the east wall of the playroom, it was even colder and wetter than the living room, and water leaked from the window sills and spilled onto the thin, worn, blue and green carpet.
In the toy bin, on the west wall, flanked by two windows, I recklessly reached for the toy drum that sat next to the tambourine missing half of its metal circles, and the maraca, which I only knew as “the shaky thing.”
BAM, I struck down.
BAM, not knowing why she would not play.
BAM, not knowing why she did not stop me.
BAM, not knowing why she stayed in her room.
BAM, not knowing why I could not drown out the rain.
And then CRY. CRY because of what no one talked of but was happening all the same.
The farmhouse, unsheltered in the open plains, stiffened in anticipation of each rumble, gust, and bolt that came down from the late March sky of 1981. In the nighttime dark, the lightning exposed the cloudy skies, revealing the dark, dense layers of gray sheets that reached out in all directions. One thunderstorm after another lined up to take its turn. The sky a spigot with no off-switch, digging a grave in place of a breeding ground.
All the adults were busy on the first floor, so when I went into Mama’s room, no one noticed. I studied her fancy shoes, stopping to finger the satin and lace embroidery on her favorite midnight blue high-heels. Never worn. I traced zig zags down the length of her scarves. I opened her jewelry case, wrapped up in taut, white leather with goose bumps and a broken lock, and for just a moment, I inhaled the joy of her treasures and exhaled sorrow, but the treasures weren’t enough. I wanted more. I wanted a trade. I’ll stay downstairs if Mama comes home, I’d say. I won’t be mad if she can’t play.
When I went downstairs, the farmhouse, busy during the day but not at night, was now a whirling dervish of people, the makings of a lively party but the adults were in no mood. Grandparents. Aunts. Uncles. Relatives left their children behind and came to our house. Those who could not did the calling. They tried again and again to break through the nearly constant busy signal. The only phone was in the kitchen, and my grandma, who still came to the farm every day, answered. Daddy said it was dangerous to be on the phone when there was lightning, but that didn’t stop Grandma. She took one call after another.
Yes, she did, Grandma would say in hushed tones. She said the same thing, over and over. And eventually, Thank you for calling.
They were short calls. No details.
The only person I couldn’t spot was Daddy.
And then I did.
At the time, I was sitting with my back against the dark brown, bottom cupboard to the left of the bulky, white phone hanging from the kitchen wall. I grabbed my knees, resting my left cheek on them. I fixed my eyes on Grandma’s feet, covered in Dark Suntan Leggs nylons, which she wore in place of socks, under her tan “slacks,” as she called them. The tangled, spiral phone cord brushed against the tops of my feet, already bare and preparing for summer.
Daddy opened the door and walked straight to Rodney who sat on a vinyl bar stool, the kind that stuck to your skin in hot weather. Then Daddy walked towards Richie who stared straight out at the storm through the northerly bay window, a lookout on a stormy sea. When Daddy couldn’t find me, Grandma covered the telephone receiver and said, She’s over here, across the crowd to Daddy.
Let’s talk, Daddy said. He looked stronger. Bigger. Daddy took my hand with his right, the one he smoked with, and I breathed in his cigarette smell. My brothers and I followed him into the dark. Daddy then me, Rodney, and Richie who closed the door at the foot of the stairs, separating the first floor from the second. The stairwell was illuminated only by the dim hallway light, which we walked towards. With each step, we went up, up to a place I thought I knew but no longer made sense. The stairs creaked slowly and strangely, the old, knowing wood underfoot, supporting our weight.
Daddy led us to the room my brothers shared. The carpet was a saturated, burnt orange, but that night it looked almost red, and the walls were lined with the dark wood panels with knots like eyes. My brothers had twin beds with matching shades of brown designs—one bed on the north wall and one bed on the south. On the ceiling was a marbled glass light that hazily lit up the room as Daddy turned it on, allowing us to still see a lightning flash in the curious sky.
We sat, legs crossed, on the small patch of open floor in the middle of the room. Our knees touched. The light in the room flickered.
I need to tell you something, Daddy said, smoothing back his still full, wavy black hair. He hadn’t removed his cowboy boots, something he always did when entering the house, and his short-sleeve shirt with silver metal snaps was wet and clung to him.
Your mother, he began, and then CRASH. A bolt. The lights went out. Rodney gasped. Dad told me lightning was good for crops and gave them extra life. Because of that, I wasn’t scared of lightning like Rodney.
I’ll be right back, Daddy said.
No one moved. We couldn’t see, our eyes unable to adjust to the darkest of darks. Our knees pressed harder into each other’s.
The stairs creaked loud, low, and slow on his way down.
When Daddy came back, he carried a lit candle, and the three of us watched big, wavy shadows of our father move across the wall. The candle stood in the middle of an olive green, plastic cereal bowl lined with aluminum foil on the inside, my Daddy having used hot wax from the candle itself to affix it to the bottom of the bowl.
Just then, a fear swept through me, and I wanted the storm to pass. The lights to come back on. The candle-lit walls frightened me and made it seem like there were more people in the room than just us four.
WHOOSH! The flame almost went out. Before any of us spoke, the phone rang again. This time, Grandma called up the stairs.
You better come down for this one, Den.
My father’s name was Dennis. Only his mother called him that.
I have to take this. Don’t play with this, he said to us, pointing to the candle.
We nodded our heads, but as soon as Daddy was down the stairs, Rodney ran his right index finger swiftly through the center of the flame.
Don’t! Richie yelled.
I quickly straightened my right index finger and stuck it straight into the flame. I didn’t move it across quickly enough, and the fire singed my skin.
I told you not to, Richie snapped.
Let me show you how, Rodney said, pointing at the flame. I wanted to learn how to cross over without getting burned. His eyes were wide, and the candlelight made his hair appear white and sparkly. He sat upright and looked right at me. He straightened his right index finger, lined it up with the bottom of the flame and moved it quickly without flinching.
Think you can do that?
I nodded. I wanted to swallow my quickly beating heart back down from my throat and into my chest.
Straightening my right index finger again, I braced for the singe, the burn, the pain, but I moved my finger more quickly this time. Nothing. Only warmth.
Rodney lined up his finger to go again, but we heard the stairs creak under the weight of Daddy’s feet.
He sat down, finally letting the air out of his lungs and slumped over before looking up. At us.
Your mother died.
His words floated up upon the smoke from the candle’s flame. Up to the ceiling and back down. And then I began to understand the words, and they fell down upon my head like bricks from the sky.
My brothers looked only at the flame, as if unphased by the news.
Me, though, I looked over at Daddy.
Died? I asked in my head. Dead? Dead like the cat that Grandma ran over with the car? Dead like not ever coming back to her bedroom?
No one, though, could answer the questions I didn’t know how to ask.
On the day of Mama’s wake, she was anything but, and the clouds were thick and dark, but it wasn’t raining. That would come the next day when she was put in the ground.
At Fruland’s Funeral Home, my dead Mama lay in a wooden box. The wood was fancy with pretty designs, unlike the homely, splintery scraps of wood Daddy kept behind the barn. Before others came and filled the room with their whispers, looks, perfumes, and Old Spice, we floated to the front to see her. Daddy, then me, Rodney, and Richie. No one spoke. Too short to see into the casket, Daddy lifted me up, high and then higher. Mama looked fancy like the wooden box. A blur of white clothes on top of fancy, fluffy, and even whiter pillows. There was a golden Cross on her neck and a wrinkly, tan leather Bible under her see-through, clasped hands that didn’t move. She looked like she was sleeping, but she took not a breath.
Grandma dressed me in a fancy blue dress with a white bow. After Mommy left her room and never came back, Grandma’s best friend, Anne, came to the farm and fitted it to me just right. I stood real still while Anne pulled and pinned the material.
Don’t move, Anne said.
Arms straight up, Grandma added, as they worked together to pull it up and over my head after they marked the spots to bring up and in.
Grandma curled my hair under the day of the wake, just like Mommy liked it, and curls, tight and bouncy at first, opened up and stretched out throughout the evening. Grandma pulled up my dainty white socks with lace on top, and she made sure I had on a slip under my fancy dress.
And because Mommy died before Memorial Day, I wore my black patent leather shoes that Grandma called Mary Janes.
Now, act like a lady, young girl, Grandma instructed and kissed my head.
Richie and Rodney were in suits. Black ones. New ones. Ones that didn’t seem to move when they did.
Most of the time, we were in what the adults called the parlor. It had three long aisles where people could walk: a big one down the middle and two smaller ones on each side. There were large bunches of flowers by Mama in the wooden box. Most of the flowers I had never seen before, like flowers I dreamed up: bright oranges and pinks and purples and long petals making strange shapes. I wanted to smell their scents and feel their softness. I wanted to show Mama the flowers.
After Daddy, the boys, and I saw Mommy, all four of my grandparents saw her too, along with Mama’s sister, Aunt Barb, and her kids. Aunt Barb smiled a lot and had platinum blonde hair like Rodney. Kristi, her daughter, was four years older than me, Rodney’s age, and Jonathan was eight years older, Richie’s age. I didn’t have anyone my age, but I did have Kristi. Kristi was like an older sister.
Then others came in. They stopped in front of the wooden box, looked down, and walked over to us, the immediate family forming a straight line perpendicular to the wooden box.
People shook my Daddy’s hand and said words I couldn’t hear. Richie imitated our father and shook hands firmly, and Rodney fidgeted, looking everywhere but at the people who talked to him. Most rustled his white hair, hair that no longer shimmered as it had in the candlelight on the night Mama died. I smiled at the people who paused to look at me—though not everyone did. They looked too sad to talk, but I wanted them to notice my pretty dress. My lacy white socks. My shiny black shoes.
Even when they did stop, they didn’t say much besides I’m sorry, some adding…that you lost your mother.
Lost? I said to myself. Mama wasn’t lost. I knew where she was, and so did they. She was in the fancy wooden box.
How much longer do we need to stand here? Rodney asked.
Daddy looked down. He didn’t look happy. We were supposed to be quiet.
The adults, most I didn’t know, chatted to others who waited in line. My fancy shoes started to hurt, so I reached down to take one off, the right one that was squishing my big toe, and I set it on a chair in the front row. Rodney was the only one who noticed, and he rolled his eyes and smirked with his I should tell on you but won’t face.
When I got back in line next to Rodney, he said, Let’s get some gum from next door.
Even though I had just taken off a shoe, I nodded, walked back over and put it back on.
Rodney knew not to mention it to Richie who would tell us to stand still and not ask questions, so instead Rodney shimmied behind Daddy and pulled on the bottom of his fancy suit jacket while Richie looked hard at Rodney.
Daddy leaned down to listen to Rodney. Then Daddy stood back up, reached in his back pocket for his wallet and told Richie: Here’s a few dollars. Take them next door.
Richie followed orders. He snapped at us to follow, and we did.
Aunt Barb’s children, Jonathan and Kristi, sat on chairs in the back of the room. We headed straight for them.
We’re going next door to get something, Richie said.
What’s next door? Jonathan asked.
The soda shop. Come on. We’ll get some candy or pop. Dad gave me five dollars. That’s enough for everybody.
Even though Jonathan was taller than the rest of us, we all followed Richie. Kristi held my hand as we walked past the people in line and the people sitting in the fancy, padded chairs on the side of the room, people who had already seen Mama.
The line of people waiting to get inside was long and stretched down the block, a meandering river of bodies and voices. I couldn’t see the end.
We headed the other way to the soda shop.
I had been in there before with Daddy. He bought Marlboro cigarettes that came in a cellophane wrapped red box, and sometimes he would buy an Orange Crush soda for me. It came in a small glass bottle—one that the man behind the counter had to open. The glass felt different than the usual aluminum pop cans I drank from. It made it taste special.
Kristi held my hand as I walked through the store too. It was dark, small, and smelled and looked like our cellar, the cellar Daddy took us into when the winds on the farm were strong. The store had cement blocks for walls and light bulbs dangling on cords from the ceiling.
You can only buy one thing, Richie instructed.
Come on, Rodney said. Just give us each a dollar. I want my whole dollar. You can’t always tell us what to do, you know.
Richie didn’t say anything. He just walked away, still holding the five dollars.
Do you want some gum? Kristi asked, crouching down on her knees, so that her eyes were at the same height as mine.
I shrugged my shoulders.
You don’t like chocolate, she said, and she was right. What would you like?
I pointed to an orange soda bottle. It was inside the cooler along the farthest back wall.
Okay. I’ll have a bottle too, she said.
Kristi set our two, sweaty soda bottles on the counter, as we waited for the boys to decide. Rodney wanted candy and soda. I want both, he repeated.
You can’t, said Richie, and he pushed everything forward but Rodney’s soda and paid.
The man behind the counter opened my pop and Kristi’s. I drank it fast, its fizz snapping in my mouth.
I was done, but the others finished their treats in the alley between the store and the funeral home. I thought I felt a drop of rain upon my head before we went back inside, not knowing how to say goodbye to what we didn’t understand was gone.
Weeks after Mama died, everything about her went away. No one talked about her. Pictures of her disappeared from the walls. Her clothes, jewelry, toothbrush: they vanished too. Grandma Thompson, though, still came to the farm Monday through Friday. She made us breakfast, got the boys off to school, cooked, cleaned, and made supper for everyone.
On Saturdays, my maternal grandparents came, Grandpa and Grandma Peterson. Grandma was not tall and slender with gray hair neatly styled like Grandma Thompson, but short and slightly overweight with red hair not styled at all. Grandma Peterson had a trigger-quick smile and ready laugh. Grandpa Peterson was only slightly taller than she, though more slender, with grayish, black hair thinning in a perfect circle upon the top of his head. He wore a steady, humble smile, and together, they played board games with us and took us to Hornsby’s, the local “buy it all” store, where Grandma Peterson let Rodney and I pick out a toy after she looked through the women’s fashion section.
On Sundays, no one came. It was just the four of us: Daddy, me, Rodney, and Richie. Most Sundays, we went to the Lutheran Church where Grandpa and Grandma Thompson went—the church Grandpa Thompson attended as a young boy, a time when the sermons were in Norwegian not English. The church where we buried Mama down the road from the sanctuary. Pastor Lombardo was in charge of the church. He was a serious man—a serious man who visited our mother over and over before she died but no longer came to our house. Now we only saw him in church.
After Sunday School, I sat with Daddy toward the front right of the sanctuary on a wooden bench that made my tailbone hurt. The congregation sang songs I didn’t know, and Pastor Lombardo said hell a lot. It seemed strange for a man who was supposed to be good. Like me, he loved books, but he always read from the same one. He especially liked the beginning and end, flipping back and forth between the two sections, the pages fanning the front of his hair. He stood above us all, and it hurt my neck to look up at him. He was loud and talked, fast, and mad. Mostly about how the dead could only go to either heaven or hell. And we, he said, wanted to go to heaven.
After Mama died, Pastor Lombardo’s words turned from Heaven is where your mommy will be soon into Your Mommy is in heaven now.
I didn’t like that he smiled when he said she was gone.
The July after Mama died, the weather was hot and muggy but not really wet. Only 5 inches of rain by the middle of the month. Still, the crops, along with the farmers who grew them, suffered since many didn’t plant until late May or June. I wiggled in the pew, my sticky flesh glued to the old oak. All I wanted was to go home, but Rodney pinched me, and Richie said, Stop, so I did.
After church, months after Mama died, Daddy, Richie, Rodney, and I went back to the farm, and Daddy grilled steak and served it thick, juicy, and still red in the middle. Before cutting the cooked meat, he sharpened our biggest kitchen knife against a long silver rod. Scrape. Scraaaaaaape.
Eat this, he said, putting the first, smallest piece on my plate. I ate slowly, sucking the juice out before chewing. Daddy didn’t cut off the gristle. I ripped it off with my teeth and spat it out.
That night, Daddy fixed popcorn. Orville Redenbacher. I stared at Orville’s skinny white face and thick, black glasses. Daddy used the air popper. Vrooooooom, it heated up. He took out the burnt orange Tupperware from the pantry. The kernels were inside.
The ladies love them, he said.
Daddy measured one cup of seeds and set it next to the popper. I watched him while my brothers watched our only television set in the living room. M.A.S.H. was on. It was always on. The men in the show and in my house laughed at the only woman, a blonde, but I didn’t laugh. I didn’t like the teasing. I don’t think the blonde liked it either.
Rattle. Hiss. Explode! The kernels exploded fast and then slow. Then nothing, and Daddy unplugged the air popper from the outlet that sat to the left of the sink. He took out a whole stick of butter and put it in a glass measuring cup, put it in the microwave, and then drizzled it over the popcorn, using a table knife to stir and get each piece wet.
Go get the boys, he said.
I did what he said. What he asked. I didn’t want him to go away like my mom.
I ran from the kitchen to the living room even though Grandma told me not to run in the house.
Come on and get your bowls, I said to my brothers who sat on the brown couch, which sat next to the empty, avocado green woolen chair.
The windows in the living room were open, letting in the still humid July night air. The thin, white, silky drapes gathered together in the middle fanned away from the window and fell again.
The men and the only woman on the show were yelling. Something about a wounded soldier. There was blood. Movement. Noise. Fixing. There was a joke I didn’t get, but my brothers laughed. They laughed even though someone was injured and in pain.
Move, Rodney snapped. Whoosh. He whizzed by me to get to the kitchen.
Dad, Richie yelled, as he followed Rodney to the kitchen. You’re missing the best part. Hawkeye is tearing me up!
Quick. Grab your bowls, Daddy said. Let’s get back to the show.
I didn’t grab a bowl or do anything quick. I got to share Daddy’s bowl. He and I sat on the floor while the boys sat on the couch. Daddy and I grabbed handfuls of buttery, salty popcorn and shoveled it into our mouths. I didn’t like the show, but I liked sharing Daddy’s popcorn.
After Rodney and Richie were in the kitchen, I turned and walked, not ran, towards them. I heard them filling their bowls, pouring 7-Up into small, tan plastic cups. Our names written on them in marker. Pop. Fizzzzzzz.
And then I saw her. Wispy like milkweed fuzz. See-through like the silky white drapes in the living room. I stopped. It couldn’t be her, though, because Pastor Lombardo said the dead only went to heaven or hell, and that meant Mama couldn’t be standing just to the left of Daddy in the kitchen, but she was there, and she watched us. Then, she stopped and looked at me. Only at me. Her eyes met mine. She smiled just like she had on the day she told me one day we would play all day.
I looked at Daddy and the boys. I wanted to yell. I wanted to tell them. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t talk, and I couldn’t tell them that someone who was supposed to be in heaven was in the kitchen instead.
When I looked back, she was gone.
Gone like the spring flood.
Gone like the photographs of her on the living room wall.
Gone like she had gone away before.
Teri Fuller Rouse is a Midwestern flatlander and Professor of English at a community college in northern Illinois. She writes lots, including essays, memoir, short stories, and flash non-fiction. Her work has appeared in Stoneboat Literary Magazine, Tiferet Journal, Assay: A Journal of Non-Fiction Studies, and Lunch Ticket, among others. She lives with her husband and three children where the western suburbs of Chicago meet the cornfields.